Review: Zivix Jamstik MIDI guitar controller for iOS and OS X

Posted:
in General Discussion edited April 2015
Aspiring musicians looking to learn to play guitar with the aid of lessons on their iPad, iPhone or Mac should check out the Zivix Jamstik, a small, convenient and unique MIDI controller that uses technology to offset the learning curve associated with learning an instrument.

Jamstik, a 5-fret guitar-like instrument / MIDI controller.
Jamstik, a 5-fret guitar-like instrument / MIDI controller.


In the past, learning to play the guitar usually involved going to a music shop and learning from a professional teacher. This is still a solid means of learning, but digital music lessons have increasingly become the norm.

Over the years, there have been innovations like Fretlight, a system that runs fiber optic lights through the fretboard and lights up to indicate where the player is supposed to put their fingers. This is very good, and through diligent practice will help a player get better, but it lacks an interactive component. The Fretlight software doesn't know whether you've played something correctly or not, and thus can't help you correct it.

Enter the Zivix Jamstik.

Infrared LEDs barely show up in the dark.
Infrared LEDs barely show up in the dark.


Jamstik and its accompanying lessons go further than its predecessors. Because Jamstik is a MIDI controller, the iPad knows whether or not the note was played because it receives the pitch and attack signals from the guitar. How does it do it?

The Jamstik uses infrared LEDs at each position on the fretboard and can tell when your finger blocks one of the LEDs, to determine pitch. It receives vibration of the string to determine the velocity and attack at that pitch. It is able to determine string bends as well, although this setting is off by default.

Unlike Fretlight, which is a full scale guitar, Jamstik is a 5-fret instrument, which can be used as a controller for performances as much as a learning tool. It uses real guitar strings, although they're clearly shorter than those on a full length neck, and they don't require replacing or tuning.

Jamstik has a D-pad, power button and power LED. Using the D-pad, we were able to shift octaves easily.
Jamstik has a D-pad, power button and power LED. Using the D-pad, we were able to shift octaves easily.


An allen wrench is provided inside the battery door, under the battery, to bring the strings up to tension. The device charges using MicroUSB, and has a bi-color LED to indicate charge status, red for charging, green for charged.

MIDI
The opposite side of Jamstik has a common Micro-USB connector and LED to indicate charge status when charging. It also has a small port for MIDI out.


So, we placed the Jamstik in the hands of my 9-year-old daughter, who has had a few months of guitar lessons at the local guitar shop, and asked her what she thought.

It takes a bit of work to fret a string on the Jamstik, causing her to remark, "This is harder than I thought!" It works, but it's not as easy as a properly set up full-scale guitar.

Wrench
Underneath the battery is the allen wrench used for adjusting tension on the strings when restringing.


The apps provided by Zivix are Jamstik Connect, Jamstik Tutor and JamMix. Jamstik Connect helps guide the user through initially connecting the guitar to an iPad, iPhone or Mac, and trialing sounds. Lest you think 5 frets is too limiting, it's possible to use the UP and DOWN arrows of the D pad on the Jamstik to change octaves.

Allen
These allen screws adjust the tension on the strings. There's no tuning, per se.


Jamstik Tutor provides lessons, and does it in a few different ways. One interface sets the goal and marks progress in the upper left quadrant of the screen, has a video of Chris Heile, Jamstik's musical ambassador, in the upper right demonstrating the skill, and then shows a 2D drawing of the fretboard, both showing the desired note (like Fretlight) and where your fingers are actually positioned on the fretboard. This way, you can move your fingers to match the goal.




But it also has an "arcade interface" that is reminiscent of several "hero" or "band" video games from a few years ago. Having never played those games, the 9 year old said, "This is hard!"




Back in the three-pane view of JamTutor, she responded much more positively to the lesson on fretting the strings: B string. "This is nice! I'm repeating it!" And this is really a good indicator of the experience. If you can stick with it for more than 5 minutes, it grows on you. We humbly suggest if you have an interest in learning an instrument and are willing to spend the money to buy a Jamstik, that you probably are willing to stick it out.

But it does a little more. JamMix is an application that allows you to trigger loops with the frets and strings. It also works with inter-app audio and AudioBus, so it's possible to pipe audio through AniMoog to Garageband. We also like using it with Loopy/LoopyHD.

The JamMix app allows you to play loops included with the app, and then jam over the top of those loops. You play a string at a fret once to start the loop in jamMix, and play the string open to stop the loop.

Conclusion

What are the downsides to the original Jamstik? It's very intentional. You have to work very hard for arpeggios to not register the wrong notes. If you're a guitar player then it can help you play the guitar better.

The Jamstik doesn't do hammer-ons or pull-off notes, either. If you're used to doing that on a traditional guitar, you'll find those notes don't register here. Slides from one fret to the next also aren't allowed, because each pitch requires picking the string to generate a new note MIDI signal.

When connected to the Mac using Z-fi midi and GarageBand, the controller would occasionally have lag, and it would take a while for notes to catch up, as if they were queuing.

The included strap buttons aren't permanent. In our tests, we found they kept falling out. It's easy to have the strap come off while in use.

Recording the Jamstik is interesting -- we found that when we recorded the input in GarageBand on Mac, our mic was picking up the plinking of the strings in addition to our voices.

If you listen to the video we made (included below), you can hear occasional wrong notes. We assure you, we played them correctly. It didn't always understand notes perfectly, especially low F on the 1st fret of the first string, when played as a barre chord. It wanted to play it as an F-sharp. The same was true of high F on the 6th string 1st fret.

Despite these shortcomings, Jamstik is a very good learning tool, and if you understand its limitations, can be a really interesting performance tool.



Score: 3.5 out of 5

Pros
  • MIDI
  • Compatibility with Garageband, Audio Bus, Animoog, and more
  • JamTutor
  • Made in USA
Cons
  • Difficulty of playing (string height off the fretboard)
  • Not always recognizing notes correctly
  • Strap coming off while playing

Where to buy

The Zivix Jamstik is available now for $299.99 from Amazon.com. Alternatively, Jamstik is on sale for $199.99 at StackSocial for the next few days.

A new Jamstik+ Kickstarter project is currently underway and seems to come with a few improvements. Just based on the videos showing a person playing on stage on it, we suspect the action and recognition of notes to be a huge leap forward from the original. The original version uses Wi-Fi only, while the new one uses Bluetooth as well.

The new Jamstik+ also adds a hexaphonic magnetic pickup, for a more traditional guitar sound. The original version was sold in Apple Retail stores across North America, and the Jamstik+ Kickstarter has already been funded. We have no doubts about Zivix or their ability to deliver, and we can't wait to get our hands on Jamstik+.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 45
    irnchrizirnchriz Posts: 1,580member
    It's a bit pricy, if you already own an electric guitar you could pick up Rocksmith for the Mac or console of your choice along with the realtone cable for around $60 with the obvious benefit of playing on a real guitar.
  • Reply 2 of 45
    quinneyquinney Posts: 2,523member
    what a piece of crap
  • Reply 3 of 45
    bloggerblogbloggerblog Posts: 1,813member
    "Made in USA ...
    String height off the fretboard
    Not always recognizing notes correctly
    Strap coming off while playing"

    Nuff said, lol

    I kid I kid
  • Reply 4 of 45
    apple ][apple ][ Posts: 8,360member

    I'm a big fan of technology and all, especially music and audio technology, but just go out and buy a real damn guitar, if you want to play guitar!

     

    A total beginner can get a brand new guitar for pretty cheap these days.

     

    And post #2 already mentioned this, but Rocksmith 2014 is pretty good, I have it myself.

     

    I use it with both guitar and with bass. I've gone from being totally clueless on bass to being half decent in the span of about 6 months so far. 

  • Reply 5 of 45
    john.bjohn.b Posts: 2,716member
    irnchriz wrote: »
    It's a bit pricy, if you already own an electric guitar you could pick up Rocksmith for the Mac or console of your choice along with the realtone cable for around $60 with the obvious benefit of playing on a real guitar.

    Agree 100%, The Jamstik gets an "A" for effort, but the best way to learn to play guitar is by, well... playing guitar. Run, don't walk, to your favorite retailer (big box or online) and get a copy of Rocksmith 2014 for PC/Mac (Steam-based) with the "Real Tone" cable (actually an analog-to-digital USB interface) and a decently setup guitar.
  • Reply 6 of 45

    My goth friend built much of the technology behind this.  He is a freaking computer and musical genius.  I hope it succeeded.



    I just wish they made a 4 string ukulele version because the form factor is similar to a RISA soprano solid uke stick which my personal favorite instrument to play.



    <3 <3 <3

  • Reply 7 of 45
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,012member
    While Jamstik is a toy (to learn a guitar you can't beat having a nice real guitar with a good action and great sound (Taylor, Gibson, Martin or lower costs a Yamaha), anyone who actually has interest in a 'midi guitar' for real, should check out this amazing app that turns a conventional electric guitar into a midi guitar capable of playing any soft instrument.

    http://jamorigin.com/products/midi-guitar/

    There is a free trial download on this site.

    The latency (referred to as 'lag' in the article) is almost non existent in both polyphonic and monophonic modes and the application works seamlessly with Garageband and Logic Pro X. I owned real midi guitars and they were all terrible due to latency and had pretty much dropped the concept until this came along. I can now easily add strings, piano, organs, brass, etc. to a track when I'd rather use a guitar than a keyboard by using this very inexpensive program. I can even record both the analog guitar on one track and the midi on another, simultaneously in Logic Pro X.

    I have no affiliation with this company, I am just a very happy user since the program was in beta mode,
  • Reply 8 of 45
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 30,748member
    While Jamstik is a toy (to learn a guitar you can't beat having a nice real guitar with a good action and great sound (Taylor, Gibson, Martin or lower costs a Yamaha), anyone who actually has interest in a 'midi guitar' for real, should check out this amazing app that turns a conventional electric guitar into a midi guitar capable of playing any soft instrument.

    http://jamorigin.com/products/midi-guitar/

    There is a free trial download on this site.

    The latency (referred to as 'lag' in the article) is almost none existent in both polyphonic and monophonic modes and the application works seamlessly with Garageband and Logic Pro X. I owned real midi guitars and they were all terrible due to latency and had pretty much dropped the concept until this came along. I can now easily add strings, piano, organs, brass, etc. to a track when I'd rather use a guitar than a keyboard by using this very inexpensive program. I can even record both the analog guitar on one track and the midi on another, simultaneously in Logic Pro X.

    I have no affiliation with this company, I am just a very happy user since the program was in beta mode,

    FYI, if one already has both a real guitar and Logic Pro X, the audio file can already be converted to MIDI without additional software:

    http://www.ehow.com/how_6793320_convert-audio-midi-logic-pro.html
  • Reply 9 of 45
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,012member
    FYI, if one already has both a real guitar and Logic Pro X, the audio file can already be converted to MIDI without additional software:

    http://www.ehow.com/how_6793320_convert-audio-midi-logic-pro.html

    Yes, LPX has conversion after the fact but that, for a musician, would be the ultimate latency (lag)! ... Like five minutes later ... LOL

    The whole point is to hear the soft instrument as you play along with other tracks. Playing a soft instrument through midi is a skill all unto itself as some work well when triggered by strings and some don't as well. It's all about the nuances of how you pluck the string or strings and how you hold and release the strings with the other hand. If you can't hear the soft instrument you can't adjust your playing style accordingly, thus converting it after the fact would be too late, if you see what I mean. Doing any of that with even a fractional amount of latency / lag / delay is almost impossible. Try talking with a mic while hearing a half second hard echo to illustrate that. You brain turns to jelly ... :D
  • Reply 10 of 45
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 30,748member
    Yes, LPX has conversion after the fact but that, for a musician, would be the ultimate latency (lag)! ... Like five minutes later ... LOL

    The whole point is to hear the soft instrument as you play along with other tracks. Playing a soft instrument through midi is a skill all unto itself as some work well when triggered by strings and some don't as well. It's all about the nuances.

    I've found I can generate a fairly good sounding MIDI guitar using a variety of iOS apps, occasionally a keyboard, but mostly the iOS guitar functions in GarageBand. Since I have no actual guitar, it's a time consuming process attempting to emulate any kind of subtlety that is easily achieved by a skilled guitar player.
  • Reply 11 of 45
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,012member
    I've found I can generate a fairly good sounding MIDI guitar using a variety of iOS apps, occasionally a keyboard, but mostly the iOS guitar functions in GarageBand. Since I have no actual guitar, it's a time consuming process attempting to emulate any kind of subtlety that is easily achieved by a skilled guitar player.

    Yes the technology improves year on year for sure as they use AI. The acoustic guitar on the iPad Garageband blew me away. Using a keyboard and a guitar a lot for soft instruments (I am not using the term 'midi' in this context these days) I find one or the other will work far better for various soft instruments so I choose my 'weapon' accordingly. :)

    The soft instruments are best for backing tracks, I'd never use one for anything too up front as, as you say ... "it's a time consuming process attempting to emulate any kind of subtlety that is easily achieved by a skilled guitar player' ... and that's true for any instrument. I did get a few amazing bars of sax using a guitar the other day ... Jerry Rafferty's Baker Street almost.

    I throw this link in as I mentioned Jerry: Enjoy a classic on a Sunday morning with your coffee and paper :smokey:

  • Reply 12 of 45
    chadbagchadbag Posts: 1,075member
    I wish the jamstick people made a bass version. I have a bunch of real basses (and am fact have started making my own) but a handy portable thing to take with me to work or where ever that I could use to practice with would be awesome.
  • Reply 13 of 45
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,012member
    chadbag wrote: »
    I wish the jamstick people made a bass version. I have a bunch of real basses (and am fact have started making my own) but a handy portable thing to take with me to work or where ever that I could use to practice with would be awesome.

    Just use the bottom four strings and drop an octave. I do that all the time on a 6 string guitar using Midi Guitar with soft bass instruments. ;)
  • Reply 14 of 45
    chadbagchadbag Posts: 1,075member
    Just use the bottom four strings and drop an octave. I do that all the time on a 6 string guitar using Midi Guitar with soft bass instruments. ;)

    Not the same thing. I am mostly interested in practicing riffs or parts. Technical skills. Need fatter and more accurately placed strings.
  • Reply 15 of 45
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 30,748member
    Just use the bottom four strings and drop an octave. I do that all the time on a 6 string guitar using Midi Guitar with soft bass instruments. ;)

    Isn't that what guitarists call a "drop G" tuning?
  • Reply 16 of 45
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,012member
    Isn't that what guitarists call a "drop G" tuning?

    Nothing so complex. The bottom four strings on any six string are identically tuned as they are on a standard 4 string bass simply one octave higher. Dropping the octave is done in post not when playing quite often but with Midi Guitar I can actually play bass in realtime on any of my electric guitars and hear them as bass guitars.. Hence practicing riffs etc. would be identical. I see chadbag above doesn't agree with my suggestion, but I can assure you this is the case but he is correct the feel would be totally different. I only say that as some may think he meant the tuning was different.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bass_guitar_tuning
  • Reply 17 of 45
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,012member
    chadbag wrote: »
    Not the same thing. I am mostly interested in practicing riffs or parts. Technical skills. Need fatter and more accurately placed strings.

    I'd agree the feel is different. I'd argue that toy would feel pretty much the same (as in not even close) for a standard guitar too, hence I don't think they are useful for teaching. We got off track talking about software midi alternatives, my bad.
  • Reply 18 of 45
    chadbagchadbag Posts: 1,075member

    Fret spacing, and string spacing are important for practicing parts and riffs.   Especially when playing in half or first position (first or second fret centering for finger placement) since the frets are far apart on a bass.   When practicing you are developing muscle memory etc.

     

    I play bass parts on normal guitars all the time for fun -- when my daughter is practicing her guitar for example and I want to play along or just mess around.

     

    But for practicing riffs or parts I am actually trying to learn, I play on a real bass so I can get it down "for real."    

     

    This sort of Jamstik in a bass variant would be cool as a portable practice device for me.   I may still buy one of the plus models for the family the regular guitar version (the plus being on kickstarter right now).

     

    I normally play a 6 string bass but have a couple 4s and am building a 5 right now.  A 4 sits next to me in my home office and I often practice on it when I don't want to go get the 6 in the other room.

     

    And (in reply to the people not familiar with the bass tuning), the standard 4 string bass is tuned an octave lower but with the same string tuning as the first 4 strings (low register) of the normal guitar, in a normal tuning.  A 5 string bass normally has a low B string, which follows the same pattern as the rest, but is not related to a normal guitar.  A normal 6 string bass has the same B string on the low end, and a C string on the higher register end, which is different from a 6 string guitar.  A 6 string bass is   B E A D G C while a 6 string guitar is normally E A D G B E .   If you normally play a 4 string Bass, you can ignore the low B or high C on a 5 or 6 string guitar and get along just fine.   But since the extra strings follow the same interval pattern (all the strings on a bass are typically tuned in even 4ths going from low to high or 5th going from high to low) all the way across all strings so the patterns you learn on a 4 also work on the 5 or 6...

  • Reply 19 of 45
    esoomesoom Posts: 155member

    I backed the BT jamstik+, the reviews of the original js's are not good, the strap issue is a pretty consistent finding, and the original connects using WiFi, and there are lots of problems reported with pairing, hoping the BT version is significantly better. 

  • Reply 20 of 45

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